We were supposed to be talking about the wildcard playoff race right now and not the 2013 draft or whether or not the Bills should make a coaching change for the 5th time in 13 years.
But the 2012 season will likely go down in the record books as the 13th consecutive non-playoff year and perhaps the most disappointing season over that long stretch.
What happened? Where did it all go so wrong?
In my opinion it all starts on the defensive side of the ball. That’s where the Bills spent a lot of time and Ralph Wilson’s money this past off season to improve a unit that was one of the worst in the NFL last season.
It took the defense half a season to get their collective game together. In hindsight, maybe we should have seen opening day as a bad omen. The defense got off on the proverbial wrong foot when it was thrashed by a New York Jets offense that would turn out to be one of the worst in the league.
There was the second half collapse against the Patriots, followed by a game in San Francisco where they were torched for 45 points and gave up a franchise record 680 yards.
But the dagger to the heart may have been the loss to Tennessee where the defense gave up 35 points to what had been a struggling Titans offense and couldn’t protect a lead at the end of the game.
You can start up front in terms of diagnosing what went wrong on defense. The Bills scheme is predicated on the four linemen setting the tone but that group really struggled over the first two months.
Big ticket free agent Mario Williams was close to invisible on way too many game days. Perhaps it was a wrist injury he sustained in the pre-season because Williams has looked like a different player since having surgery during the bye week.
Mark Anderson, the other free agent pickup brought in to bolster the D-line, looked only slightly better than Williams before suffering an injury in the fourth game of the season.
Second year Bill Marcell Dareus was dealing with an off field tragedy as his younger brother was shot to death in a robbery/homicide back home in Alabama. Dareus played like someone whose mind was elsewhere but his game, like Mario Williams, has come around since the mid point of the season.
The linebacking corps was a huge question mark coming into the season and remains so. The play of Nick Barnett seemed to slip in the first half of the season, compared to his performance in 2011.
The Bills hoped middle linebacker Kelvin Sheppard would make a significant jump in his second season but that hasn’t happened and three different players have taken a crack at the third LB spot with Kirk Morrison losing the job in training camp to Arthur Moats and then Moats losing the job to rookie Nigel Bradham.
Outside of Jairus Byrd and Stephon Gilmore, the secondary has been a mess. Gilmore himself struggled as he got his feet wet but the other starter, Aaron Williams probably would have lost the job based on performance if he hadn’t been injured.
Veteran Terrence McGee would have provided a boost at that spot but couldn’t stay on the field for more than 20 snaps a game and was eventually placed on injured reserve.
Leodis McKelvin began the season as the nickel back but couldn’t hang on to the job and was replaced by second year pro Justin Rogers. Rogers has gone backwards with his low point coming in that loss to Tennessee when he was beaten on the game winning TD pass.
Veteran safety George Wilson had a chance to seal the win but couldn’t hold on to an interception and that play in a nutshell describes his season. Wilson, who went from undrafted free agent receiver to safety, has usually been good for a handful of big plays over the course of the season but they just haven’t been there in 2012. He’s even lost some playing time to Da’Norris Searcy.
Lets not leave out the man in charge of the defense, Dave Wannstedt. His flawed game plans in the opener against the Jets and the home game with the Patriots are partly to blame for those losses. At times, Wannstedt’s inability to adjust or inflexibility when it comes to his game plan has been a liability.
The high expectations of 2012 didn’t pan out due to the regression of quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick too. He’ll never be confused with a franchise quarterback but the Bills appeared to have put together a good enough team around him so they could, at the very, least contend for a playoff spot.
Perhaps the decision to bring in a quarterbacks coach and overhaul Fitzpatrick’s mechanics turned out to be a detriment because the passing game for the Bills has suffered. Fitzpatrick has been hesitant to throw the ball downfield and the most effective plays are screen passes and dump offs.
Interestingly enough, the numbers won’t necessarily tell the story, except for average yards per game, when you compare Fitzpatrick’s stats from 2012 to his 2011 numbers. His completion percentage is 61% and it was 62% last season. He’s thrown 20 touchdowns and 12 interceptions and his 2011 totals were 24 TD’s and 23 INTs. His quarterback rating is actually better, standing at 85 with 3 games to go. Last season he finished with a 79 rating.
As I said the big change comes in yards. Fitzpatrick is averaging just 170 passing yards a game(those are Trent Edwards numbers) as opposed to 2011 when he averaged 239 yards a game.
The Bills inability to play complete games has been a problem as well. The Kansas City and Jacksonville games are the only two all season where the Bills were solid across the board with offense, defense and special teams.
While the defense has improved over the second half of the season, the offense has gone in the opposite direction. After averaging 24 points game through the first 8 games, Buffalo has averaged 19 points over the last 5 games.
What else went wrong this season? Chan Gailey has taken a big step back as Head Coach. I thought Gailey did a tremendous job in his first 2 years of getting production from an offense that didn’t boast a great level of talent at the skill positions.
But Gailey seems to have run out of answers and certainly seems to be coaching very conservatively. The loss to St. Louis may have been the breaking point for many Bills fans but going back to the Arizona victory, Gailey has made numerous questionable decisions including the running back rotation, the lack of touches for C.J. Spiller, not kicking 50+ yard field goals, clock management and play calling.
It looks like the defense is headed in the right direction but the performance of the Head Coach and the quarterback are now huge problems for the franchise and it remains to be seen if they change one or both or neither. That decision will go a long way in determining whether we are right back in this spot, one year from now, wondering why the Bills will miss the playoffs for a 14th straight season.